Guitarist Ronnie Earl has to be one of the most prolific artists on the contemporary blues scene, having released an album a year since 2013. And, what makes his productivity even more impressive is the consistently high quality of the music he creates with his signature guitar style and first-rate band. The Luckiest Man, another stellar effort, is dedicated to the late Jim Mouradian, the band’s bassist of seventeen years who passed away in January of 2017. The title is drawn from the late musician’s saying: “I’m the luckiest man you know – and I don’t even know who you know.”
The program kicks off with a cover of the Bobby “Blue” Bland hit “Ain’t That Loving You,” and Earl immediately makes his presence felt with his classic taut, resonant tone and precise, economical fills and solos. Vocalist Diane Blue brings the fire to the tune and is spurred on by guest saxophonists Mark Earley and Mario Perrett. Blue’s vocal work throughout the set is impressive as she tackles a wide array of classic tunes that are associated with a diverse group of male vocalists. Clearly with their departed bandmate in mind, Blue duets with Earl’s double-tracked acoustic and electric guitars on a stark reading of the Reverend Gary Davis’ “Death Don’t Have No Mercy.” As low key as the Davis number is, Blue shows that she can exuberantly rock out on Little Willie John’s “Heartbreak (It’s Killing Me)” that is propelled by Dave Limina’s surging Hammond B3. Perhaps the greatest challenge for Blue is a cover of Bryan Adams’ gospel tune “Never Gonna Break My Faith,” which was originally recorded by Aretha Franklin and Mary J. Blige; Blue handles the task readily, delivering an impassioned vocal that is matched by a dramatic Earl solo.
Earl pays homage to Mouradian with “Jim’s Song,” a solo meditation that evokes a deep sense of loss. He looks back to one of his earliest experiences with a fortieth anniversary reunion with the original members of Sugar Ray & the Bluetones, along with the band’s current guitar man Mike Welch, for a slow, extended jam on “Long Lost Conversation.” Earl and organist Limina kick back and serve up a soulful dialogue on “Sweet Miss Vee” that conjures King Curtis’ grooving, down-home instrumentals. As a fledgling guitarist in the mid-1970s, Earl famously rode a bus from Massachusetts to Chicago to check out the blues scene, and the Windy City certainly seems to be on his mind. He duels with guest guitarist Peter Ward on “Southside Stomp,” a loping instrumental shuffle, and delivers a fantastic piano/guitar interchange on “Howlin’ Blues.” The program closes with tributes to three Chicago blues guitar masters. On the original instrumental “Blues for Magic Sam,” Earl takes his time teasing the maximum emotive power from each note. With Blue on vocals, he pulls out all stops and serves up an epic take on the Otis Rush masterpiece “So Many Roads” and rocks out on the closer, Fenton Robinson’s “You Don’t Know What Love Is.”